I Had Seen Birth and Death, But Had Thought They Were Different
by Amy L. Hull
Written for Telaryn in the New Year 2009 Old School ficathon on LiveJournal
Author's Note: Thanks to Merlin Missy for the beta. Title from T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" and excerpts between sections from Robert Penn Warren's "After the Dinner Party
...your grave and synchronized tread...
Footsteps echoed from the walls and the darkness seemed to weigh on him as heavily as the events and memories of the past year. The way seemed darker, the paths steeper, the air damper and more chill.
The oppressive sadness slowed everyone's steps and made the walk to the Great Hall melancholy rather than joyful. Around him, the remaining dwellers of the world Father had built in the Tunnels were quiet, pensive, and no laughter or idle chatter filled the spaces. Instead, palpable grief draped around them like their cloaks and clothing.
There had been so many losses this year and the breezes blowing up the grand staircase from the Chamber of the Winds chilled his face where lines of tears flowed.
There was a squeak and Jacob squirmed against him, stretching the fabric that tied him to Vincent's chest. Vincent's hand moved unconsciously to make gentle circles on the baby's back and the squeak shifted to a coo. Vincent leaned over and kissed Jacob's forehead and the dark, serious eyes met his for a long moment.
"Vincent? Vincent, you okay?"
"I'm fine, Mouse." He placed an arm around the boy's shoulders--not so much a boy anymore--and they continued down the staircase together, the footsteps of the others still dimly following them.
As the winds built, Jacob tucked his face into Vincent's tunic, squeezing the shirt fabric beneath with a tiny fist, and Vincent felt the dampness from his son gnawing on the material against his chest. Long-unused muscles in his face tugged lightly at his lips and he wrapped his cloak more tightly about the little body.
When he reached the bottom and the wind was blowing his hair and cloak about him, he finally heard a murmur that resembled anticipation and he glanced over his shoulder at the grey shapes of the others before pushing the massive doors open. As they all filed into the Great Hall, there was a bit of milling about as people found seats, and Vincent leaned protectively over Jacob, turning him and adjusting the fabric of the wrap so he could look out at the large room.
"Welcome to Winterfest, my son," he whispered.
true weight of darkness
After the sounds of movement died down, Vincent joined Father at the head of the table. Jacob held Vincent's thumb, chewing happily on the side his hand.
Father's voice echoed through the chamber with familiar words, "The world above us is cold and grey; summer, a distant memory. Our world too has known its winters, so each year we begin this feast in darkness, as our world began in darkness."
The chair that should have been at Vincent's right hand was missing and its absence was like a huge bell tolling in his chest, reverberating with Catherine's absence and loss. He tried to pull up memories of last year's Winterfest, of whether Catherine had even attended, whether she had been free at that time or already in the clutches of that...
Jacob jumped as the match was struck and a point of light flickered into the darkness. As Father touched the fire to the wick of Rebecca's candle, Jacob leaned forward toward it, eyes and head following the movement as Father reached toward the candle Vincent held. Vincent wrapped the baby's tiny fingers around the candle and touched the wicks.
"...those days these tunnels were dark places, and those who dwelt here dwelt in fear and isolation..."
The light spread the length of the table, and face after face became bathed in the glow, but the one Vincent wanted most to see was not there. Jacob's eyes remained wide and Vincent murmured against his son's head, "She only got to be here once, but your mother watched this like it was magic as well. I cannot light a candle without the smell of the melting wax reminding me of this festival."
"...a few people learned to put aside their fear. And we began to trust each other, to help each other."
"And I can never explain to you how much your mother meant to me, how much it meant to me that she put aside her fear and trusted me." He hugged the wiggly body close to him and whispered, "For that short while, we were so lucky."
"...we meet here each year to give thanks to those who have helped us and to remember: Even the greatest darkness is nothing, so long as we share the light."
At that, as was tradition, the chandelier, now alight, was hoisted toward the ceiling of the Great Hall and Jacob raised an arm and squealed with delight. For the first time in months, the entire community laughed and, soft though it was, it seemed to shatter the tension and brittleness of their grief.
others who never again can come to partake
Vincent hovered around the walls, watching, remembering. He saw Catherine in his mind's eye, her eyes sparkling, smile wide, her white dress and the candlelight in her hair making her look for all the world like an angel.
He stayed in motion, swaying gently and listening to the wafting conversations. The couple of times he heard Catherine's name there was an awkward silence when his presence was noticed, followed by, "Good Winterfest, Vincent."
He heard a smattering of the names of Helpers and Tunnel dwellers who had died or otherwise couldn't make it to Winterfest. So many names...too many for one year, too many iterations of, "I miss...." and "Matthew would have loved..."
He felt tears again. The recent past had been a time when tears were more common than not, and even Jacob could not entirely distract him from his grief, though everyone at Winterfest cooed and gushed over his perfection, coaxing smiles and giggles from him while glancing sadly at Vincent.
"She's here with us, you know," Mary said softly, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm.
Vincent nodded, took a breath, encouraged Jacob to grip his finger. "It just seems like so little. And Jacob...he doesn't know. She should be here, to see his first ...everything," Vincent stumbled through the words he'd not yet said aloud, hearing a sound halfway between a growl and a whimper creep in as he voiced the "everything" that Catherine would miss with Jacob...with him.
"After my daughter died," Mary's breath caught as well, and she looked around at the candles, also taking and blowing out a deep breath. "Years later I read the best description of how I felt. C.S. Lewis said, 'No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear,' and talked about that pit in your stomach, the emptiness. Many, many of us--most of those in the Tunnels--have suffered devastating losses and can understand in some way. I'm always here if you need me." She patted his arm and walked toward Pascal.
what is left to say when the last logs sag and wink?
the dark outside is streaked with the casual snowflake
of winter's demise
"Vincent?" The soft query was uncertain and the huge eyes behind thick lenses were set in a much taller and even ganglier boy.
"Eric. How is your Winterfest this year?"
"Better than before. That first year, two years ago, Ellie...Ellie had died only weeks before. This is the first year I've been able to see how beautiful Rebecca's candles are. I even got to help deliver them this year!"
Vincent smiled. "It will be many years yet before Jacob goes out to deliver candles. But, if you're here, I hope you'll be one of the ones to lead him on his first errands."
Eric grinned, stroking Jacob's cheek with a fingertip.
reaches out a hand, open and empty
how long it seems till a hand finds that hand there laid
Candlelight shone off her hair as she turned. "Vincent. You look well."
"Why didn't you come to talk to me earlier?"
"I...didn't want to intrude. How is Jacob?"
"He is well, too. Growing like the proverbial weed." Vincent stroked his head and Diana let him grip her finger and shook his hand.
"Vincent? Will you come over here?" Jamie reached a hand toward him. "We have something for you."
She led him to where many people were gathered, all smiling expectantly. Vincent patted Jacob's tummy as he squealed and kicked. "Peter, happy Winterfest," he said as the doctor stepped forward. "What are you doing? You know Winterfest is not about gifts."
"We've put this together for you as a memorial and to share with Jacob as he grows." The group parted until he could see an open book. There were photos of Catherine staring out at him from the pages and he stepped forward, speechless.
"Where?" Vincent's voice caught, his fingertips reaching reverently for--but not quite touching--the pages of the book on the stand. "Where did you...how...?"
Peter rescued him, reaching out to turn the page. The next was filled with images of Catherine as a young girl.
"After Catherine died," Peter began, "her boss, Joe Maxwell, called me. I was listed as an emergency contact and he said he figured I was the nearest thing she had to next of kin. I helped pack away her apartment and found the photos she'd gotten when her father died. The kids," he gestured to the smiling faces around him, "all helped assemble the book."
Samantha slipped a hand inside Vincent's. "We hope you like it."
Vincent stroked Catherine's face in the photograph. "Look, Jacob, that's your mother," he whispered, turning the pages. His breath caught as he turned to the community. "I'm touched...beyond what I can say." He knelt, gathering the children in his arms. "Thank you."
Jacob squealed in protest and they pulled apart, laughing, and Vincent laid a hand on the faces of the nearest children, many of whom leaned in to kiss Jacob as well.
of the absent ... whose bright gaze
over-arches the future's horizon, in the mist of your prayers
Jacob had long since fallen asleep, tummy full and snuggled up to Vincent's chest, and he looked around at the community, feeling more whole than he could remember in months.
Father called and everyone gathered in their Circle, smiles bright, hearts warmed, and hands held high in celebration of their unity.
He looked around at their joined hands and his son's head against his chest and the only thought in his mind was, "I love you all."
He could hear Catherine's voice ringing gently in his head, whispering, "Forever and forever and forever."
even so, one hands gropes out for another, again.